Exodus International and the Problem of Biblical Interpretation

As the Supreme Court approaches its deadline to make a decision on Proposition 8 and the constitutionality of DOMA, many countries in Africa still have anti-homosexuality laws in place. Life for the LGBTQ communities in these regions is precarious at best. While the U.S.’ culture wars and legal battles make waves that sway the lives of those of us living here, the ripples gain momentum as they travel internationally and the effects become increasingly dangerous and severe.

Thus, when Exodus International — an American Christian ministry boasting a network of “260 Ministries, Professional Counselors and Churches”, all put in place to “help those affected by homosexuality” — shuts its doors it is not an isolated religious, or even American affair, but an international event with potentially huge consequences.

Alan Chambers is the president of Exodus International and a self-proclaimed success story of its program. Though, he has subsequently issued an apology for its practices. While he has apologized for the methods that Exodus has used in the past, he states that,

“I cannot apologize for my deeply held biblical beliefs about the boundaries I see in scripture surrounding sex… I cannot apologize for my beliefs about marriage.”chambers

In his statement there is a trope commonly heard among conservative Christians involved in the culture wars — it’s not that they themselves hate the LGBTQ community, evolution or women leaders, it’s that the Bible, God’s word, constrains them to accept and propagate certain positions that are counter cultural. Sadly, so the trope goes, due to their belief in Scripture and its dictates, our culture construes them as hate-mongerers and backward-thinking bigots.

However, they claim, their positions on marriage come straight from God’s word. If God is love, as they claim he is, it follows that his commands are ultimately loving and just. We may not be able to understand how demonizing something as core to an individual as their sexual identity is loving, and they may not be able to explain it, but it must be true. They are simply testifying to God’s truth; they are captives to God’s word and commandments, they are cultural martyrs for the truth.

This trope is a contemporary — albeit warped — instantiation of one of Martin Luther’s famous Reformation rallying cries: sola scriptura.  Luther, along with the other Protestant Reformers such as Calvin and Zwingli, sought to break the domination that the Catholic Church exercised over the masses’ religious experiences and expressions. While the Reformers agreed that the Church was entrusted with the message of salvation, it was only when it submitted itself to the authority of the Scriptures, God’s word, that it could carry out this holy task. For the Reformers, the Scriptures made the Church.

Contrary to what the rhetoric of many well meaning Christians would suggest, the Bible was not handed down from on high. Rather, the books that make up the Christian Scriptures were written, disseminated, used, collected and ultimately canonized through a historical process— an incredibly convoluted one. While in its better moments the Church tried to do its best to discern the guiding power of the Holy Spirit as it did so, the canonization process was less then a transcendental experience of holy illumination. From the beginning, the canonization process was tainted by political maneuvering, power dynamics and imperial ambition. Just as the Church is a human institution, the creation of the Scriptures was a human endeavor.

For confessional Christians — Roman Catholics, Evangelicals, Eastern Orthodox, Pentecostals, Presbyterians, etc.—the Bible is, nevertheless, the norming norm. It is the sacred text, the inspired and unique revelation of God and God’s work in our world.

In light of this, the Christian is stuck in a quagmire: on one hand, she must assert that God was in the process of the development and canonization of the Scriptures, while on the other, if she is intellectually honest, she must recognize the canonization process was an all too human venture. If she wants to claim that the Scriptures make the Church, she can only do so while recognizing that the Church made the Scriptures.

Karl Barth, one of the most influential and thoughtful Christian theologians of the 20th century, argued that all talk about God can only take place through dialectics. That is, all God talk must come about through a process of disagreement and dialogue. The simple reason being that we are not God. If there is a God, we cannot know this God immediately — we can not know God as God knows God, as God is in God’s self. Instead, we must discern God through God’s unfolding work taking place in the messy business of human interaction and relationships. While, for Barth, God is continually at work redeeming all that is within history, the recognition of this work will be an ongoing and open-ended process of discussion and deliberation.

Now we can finally discern the problem with the trope found within Chamber’s statement and those similar to it. When someone makes a claim that their position comes directly from Scripture, along with the implicit claim that they should not be held responsible for it — after all, they are merely reading and following God’s word — we can, and indeed should, respond by calling bullshit. This isn’t because there is no such thing as God’s word — who knows, there maybe — nor is it because it is illogical to have one’s opinions regarding sexuality, or even public policy influenced by it. It is because God’s word simply doesn’t operate that way. It never has.

If God is trying to communicate to the world, and if God is doing so through the Christian Scriptures (or through any other holy text), then the only way that God can do so, and ever has, is through the messy process of deliberation, interpretation and more deliberation. God’s word is not found in between the covers of a book. Nor is it handed down ex cathedra from church magistrates on high. God’s word is a process that happens between members of communities as they seek to live out of and into the reality that the best of every religious tradition has revealed God to be: love. It is a process that relies on the findings of the natural and social sciences, the experiences of those who are members of the community and, importantly, those who are not, the various religions of the world, and sure the tradition of the Church and even the Bible.

It ultimately comes down to an issue of authority. If the Bible fell from heaven—along with Calvin’s Institutes, or Vatican II’s statements, or even Barth’s Rommerbrief—then who are we, mere mortals, to argue with it? If, however, this isn’t how it happened, if the writing and canonization of the Bible was, and the interpretation of it still is, an on going and open-ended process, then we are neither subject to every claim it makes—such as a six day creation—nor the ways that it has been read and interpreted throughout its history.

We can disagree with the book of Joshua when it says that God stopped the sun from going around the earth, while, unlike Luther, accepting the Copernican cosmological revolution. We can eschew the anti-abolitionists’ reading of the Pauline Epistles and recognize that slavery is in opposition to God’s redemptive work in the world. We can realize that the Gospel of Jesus Christ, and the Scriptures that it comes to us clothed in, is big enough to embrace and affirm all who seek to live into and out of love, whether gay or straight, transgender or not quite sure yet. We can take responsibility for our actions and the positions that we hold. Thank God.

As a Christian myself, I’m excited that Exodus International is closing its doors. I wish they had never opened them. However, I’m encouraged that Chambers is taking responsibility for some of his actions and apologizing for the anguish and suffering that they have caused. Nevertheless, it is not enough. Until Christians everywhere recognize that the full inclusion of the LGBTQ community — including full marriage equality and international prosecution of human rights abuses — is a Gospel mandate, we will be outside of the Kingdom of God on this issue.

Part of this process requires theological labor. We need to recognize that the Biblical hermeneutics — the way that the Bible is read and applied to our lives — that many in the Church have are not only naïve, but destructive. We need to realize that even if the Scriptures make the Church, the Church made the Scriptures and is consequently responsible to discern the way in which the Spirit is guiding it to use them. The only firm foundation that we as Christians can fall back on in this is the true Word of God, the logos, Christ. This means that all we have is the hope that his Spirit will be present in our dialogue, an incarnational dialogue that requires the best of human reason coupled with humility, openness, trust and repentance if we are to live into the Body of Christ, a community of love, now.

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